New religions and powerful women aplenty

bookWell, kind hearts, here we are in the fourth of a five-book series.  At the risk of being accused of indulging in extravagant praise, I must begin with words like “amazing, astonishing,” and yes, even “spellbinding.” All of George R. R. Martin’s characters are still here (although some have momentarily vanished), and they are still scheming, deceiving, murdering and ... surviving.

An erudite look into the cultural wars

bookSome years ago, a local artist mounted a painting in a local art show in which he painted Christ with pink paws and Easter bunny ears. “This is going to upset some people around here,” the painter told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, having heard of the statue of the Virgin Mary covered with cattle dung at a New York show and of Andres Serrano‘s “Piss Christ” – this piece of art entailed putting a crucifix in a jar of urine – most Americans would find a Jesus Easter bunny about as controversial as a piece of broccoli quiche. Had he wanted to ignite a real firestorm, he should have depicted the founder of Islam with a nine-year-old girl in his lap wearing a wedding dress.

Martin earns mention alongside Tolkien

bookI apologize. About a month ago, when I concluded my review of Clash of Kings, I noted that I would not continue reviewing all of the books in the Songs of Ice and Fire series (I believe that there are five, but then there are rumors of more). My logic was that although I found this series marvelous reading, I was spending too much time on a single author. Of course, I fully intended to keep reading the series myself since I am beginning to feel that Martin’s fantasy world is on a par with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The truth is, after finishing A Storm of Swords, I find that I have turned into a fervent disciple who is duty bound to recruit new converts and followers. You have been forewarned.

Frank’s characters confront moral uncertainties

bookWhat would you do if your teenaged daughter was assaulted, beaten and shot almost to the point of death, and raped? Would you hunt down the assailants? And what would you do if you were a physician and an ardent pro-life advocate and found that this same daughter was pregnant? What would you do if you were a Miami cop — a good one — and suddenly found yourself being ordered about by fools and politicos? And how do you go on defending a system that seems to condemn the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime?

Dig deep and ‘The Father’s Tale’ will reward

bookMichael O’Brien’s The Father’s Tale (Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-0-89870-815-8) has more strikes against it than Babe Ruth on a bad afternoon.

Here is a doorstop of a novel, weighing in at nearly three pounds, more than one thousand pages long. There are redundancies galore; there are clunky passages; there are coincidences, particularly one involving a Russian military operation, that stretch belief to a breaking point. The characters engage in philosophical and theological debates that will annoy the car chase and bang-bang readers. Often the dialogue is didactic and polemical.  The main character, Alex Graham, hails from Canada — O’Brien himself is a Maple Leaf man — a country which, should they think of it at all, many Americans would describe as safe, comfortable and boring. Finally, Alex Graham is a believing Catholic, and much of the novel explores that faith, an exploration that will offend — and in some cases, enlighten — those who take their ideas of Catholicism from priestly scandals, the Spanish Inquisition and The DaVinci Code.

Snake handlers riveting but cliché

book“... and these signs shall follow those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poisons, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will get well.”

Clem Barfield, the sheriff of Madison County, has been doing his job for 25 years, yet as he ruefully notes, he is still considered an outsider.

Watch out! Bigfoot sighted in WNC

I’d never read a horror-fiction genre book in my life. That is, until I found myself at an author’s event last month at Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville talking with Eric Brown about his recent book about Bigfoot (Sasquatch) set “here in the mountains over near Lake Fontana.” Being a sucker for tales of Bigfoot and Bigfoot mythology, I was immediately interested and asked for a copy of the book.

Sequel picks up enticing tale

Although A Clash of Kings, the second in George R. R. Martin’s epic series, has a multitude of unforgettable characters, none is more fascinating than the grotesquely disfigured Sandor Clegane. Shortly before the final attack on King’s Landing, a great city that is under siege by four separate armies, Sandor has a conversation with Sansa Stark, a captive who owes her life to Sandor. Stung by Clegane’s mockery and contempt, Sansa says, “Does it give you joy to scare people?” Sandor’s reply could well serve a grim revelation and a daunting insight into medieval warfare and the dark heart of humanity:

“No, it gives me joy to kill people ... Killing is the sweetest thing there is ... You think it is all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.” He laid his long sword against her neck, just under her ear. Sansa could feel the sharpness of the steel. “I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many that I have killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich people dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too – they are all meat and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold.” Sandor Clegane spat at her feet to show what he thought of that. “So long as I have this,” he said, lifting the sword from her throat.

This singular speech by a brutal, psychopathic killer summarizes the basic theme of A Clash of Kings. In spite of its mesmerizing splendor, George R. R. Martin’s fanciful world is often cruel and blood-splattered. This second book in the Songs of Ice and Fire series contains an excess of carnage. Thousands die in sea battles, drowned or burned by wildfire (a kind of medieval napalm). Countless lords and nobles are beheaded and thousands more fall before axes, swords and crossbows. Occasionally, the author pauses to note that the nameless dead – the “little folk” in ravaged villages and farms – they all die without  the glamor of armor or heraldry. The rape and slaughter of multitudes are merely a by-product of war ... the small or common folk die simply because they were “in the way” and they die without purpose of meaning.

Yet, this is a compelling tale and the multitudes of readers seem committed to following this amazingly varied cast to the final (Eighth) book.

Here is a general summary of Book Two: Ned Stark’s tragic death at the end of Book I changed the lives of his family, many of whom fled for their lives. Others such as Sansa, Ned’s daughter, are trapped in King’s Landing, a prisoner (and bride-to-be) of the vicious boy-king, Joffery Lannister. The 12-year-old Arya Stark escapes and  becomes a hapless servant to a half-dozen masters, but dreams of returning to Winterfell and her family. Ironically, Winterfell has been invaded and the fate of her brothers and sisters is unknown. Catelyn Stark, the widowed Queen of Ned Stark, joins her 15-year-old son, Robb who has named himself “King of the North” and vowed to avenge his father’s death. However, as he marches on King’s Landing, his father’s old enemies invade the Stark kingdom of Winterfell.

A Clash of Kings has an abundance of villains. Queen Cersei, although openly denounced as “incestuous and heartless,” manages to retain control of King’s Landing while plotting to rescue her lover/brother, Jaime Lannister, currently imprisoned by Catelyn Stark. A host of self-serving court officials murder, maim and betray at will. There is an offensive eunuch called “the whisperer” for his talent in relaying dangerous gossip and a finance officer named Littlefinger who has an almost supernatural ability to assassinate and betray with impunity. Invariably, his intrigue leads to his promotion to a higher office.

The most maligned character in A Clash of Kings is Tyrion Lannister, the  ugly dwarf who has been nick-named “The Imp.” Despised by everyone including his father and sister, Tyrion survives by his wits and frequently finds himself cast into hazardous situations ranging from riding with a murderous band of thieves to serving as the King’s Hand (the most powerful position in King’s Landing). However, by the end of Book 2, the Imp’s hopes are dashed again. An assassination attempt and a battle wound has rendered him disfigured and helpless and he has been imprisoned by his own family. What next?

The most mysterious figure in A Clash of Kings is Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons. The great battles raging in Westros are far removed from Daenerys’ “mission,” yet she believes that she is fated to reclaim her lost kingdom ... lost thousands of years ago, which is the Seven Kingdoms.

In an ancient time when dragons still ruled the skies, the Targaryen family ruled all of the known world. The heart of the Targaryen kingdom was the country recently ruled by Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark. Now, this “golden child” with a small band of devout followers is moving toward the coast of the Narrow Sea. Daenerys has a blind faith in the future. She will acquire ships and twenty thousand armed men, and they will accompany her to reclaim her lost kingdom. She will destroy “The Usurpers” and restore The House of Dragons. When Daenerys talks, people listen because she has something that attracts attention. She has three dragons. They are small, but they are growing larger every day.

Fledgling dragons are not the only bizarre creatures in A Clash of Kings. The world of the supernatural is growing stronger. A sorceress called “The Red Woman” appears in the court of Stannis Baratheon announcing a new religion – one that will sweep away all the gods, old and new. When Stannis accepts the Red Woman’s guidance and replaces his standards and flags with a new image: a heart within a radiant sun – a new destructive force is unleashed – a force that Stannis uses to destroy his enemies, including his own brother.

Finally, there is Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned Stark, who has abandoned Winterfell and traveled north to join the Black Brothers: an army of dedicated warriors who keep watch on the Wall – a 600-foot high boundary that separates the land of mankind from the sinister forces of “the Others” which, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, is beginning to move. With the coming of the Others, Jon and his comrades will fight what may be the “last battle.” Much of A Clash of Kings is filled with a sense of fatalism ... Winter is coming, a hundred-year-long winter that will change the world forever and render the dreams of the Starks, the Lannisters and even the Mother of Dragons meaningless.

Although this reviewer is tempted to continue reviewing Song of Ice and Fire through all eight books, he will not do so.  It is time to return to more conventional literature ... works like Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home.  Stay tuned.

Finding the right word

In his Foreword to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s The Best Words (ISBN 978-193333882-8, $14.94), Richard Lederer reminds us of Mark Twain’s much-quoted declaration: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

We live in an ocean of words. In addition to our everyday human speech, we listen to the radio, watch television, read books, play with Facebook, write emails and letters. Advertisements both heard and read are ubiquitous. Most of us throw out words with the casual disregard of a man emptying his pockets of loose change.

Yet our diction – our choice of words – often matters more than we realize. The right word can strengthen a friendship, console the sorrowful, inspire the discouraged, give pause to the smug and the self-satisfied. Some of Twain‘s “lightning“ words have even moved the hearts of millions and changed the course of our history: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” “I have a dream,” “an evil empire.” The wrong word can break a business deal, a love affair, a marriage. Who has not regretted a word carelessly spoken, a reckless phrase emailed to an acquaintance, a heedless comment whose painful consequences come back to haunt us?

Our words matter.

Which brings us back to The Best Words. Robert Fiske has spent a good part of his life reminding all who would listen to him of the importance of writing and words. He is the author of several books, including The Dictionary of Disagreeable English and The Dimwit’s Dictionary, and the editor of the Vocabula Review, an online journal devoted to fine writing and the usage and peculiarities of the English language. He is a man who loves the play and scope of language.

In this most recent book Fiske collects more than 200 of what another reviewer calls “superlative words.” Chosen both from lists of favorite words sent in by Vocabula readers and by Fiske himself, these words truly are superlative because they are infrequently used yet eminently suitable for conversation and writing. Unlike some collections which offer sesquipedalian entertainment for its own sake – Peter Bowler’s wit in The Superior Person’s Book of Words series leaves readers laughing, but few of us will use words like mammiferous (having breasts) or lilaceous (having to do with slugs) – Fiske and his Vocabula crew have here collected a kit of serviceable tools. Employing his book, we can replace the well-worn enthusiasm with ebullient, sluggish with phlegmatic, ordinary with quotidian. Even the more exotic words found in these pages – hypergelast (one who laughs excessively), quincunx (an arrangement of five objects), coprolalia (the uncontrolled or obsessive use of obscene language) to name but three – seem selected because no other word will do in their place.

Some of Fiske’s entries may also serve as a first-line of defense against suspicion or intrusion. For instance, most of us recognize a misogynist as one who hates women, but it is splendid to learn its opposite, philogynist. This is a most useful word for a man at the beach in the company of a significant other. When she asks, “Must you look at every woman in a bikini?” he has only to reply, “It’s my phylogeny acting up again, dear. I’m not sure there’s a cure.”

The Best Words follows a simple design which benefits all readers. In newspaper-width columns, the reader comes first to the word, then a phonetic guide to its pronunciation, a definition or two, and examples of its usage by noted authors. Included in the back are six quizzes. This is a splendid book for students, particularly those soon to take an SAT, teachers, writers, and all lovers of the English language.


Many books deserve a second look, but few will provide the entertainment and even the wisdom of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Smith, who also wrote The One Hundred and One Dalmations, here drops us into the English countryside of the 1930s, where we enter the lives of the Mortmain family: Cassandra, the 17-year-old narrator and diarist, her beautiful older sister Rose, her step-mother, the exotic and loving Topaz, and her father, James Mortmain, a brilliant one-novel author suffering from more than a decade of writer’s block. All four scrape by in a falling-down castle leased to them.

Enter two young American men who have just inherited the castle and the nearby manor house. As the American become acquainted with English ways and with the Mortmains themselves, and as romance and love overtake all the characters, Cassandra records their adventures with high humor and intelligence. Cassandra is the perfect narrator here, innocent enough to still find amazement in the actions and words of others, literate enough to think of Shakespeare on a May afternoon, and with enough dry wit to give any reader laughter and pleasure. Through Cassandra Smith gives us a look into an England that may well be disappearing and into an English spirit that will, it should be hoped, endure forever.

If you know a reader among this year’s high school graduates, particularly a young woman, I Capture the Castle is one book whose wisdom and story should capture their attention.

Adding the stories of James Still to the Appalachian canon

For those who don’t know, James Still (1906-2001) is one of the most beloved and influential of all Appalachian writers. He left an enduring legacy of novels, stories, and poems during his nearly 70-year career. He is known formally and to many writers in the region as “the Dean of Appalachian Literature,” or more simply said “the Godfather of the Appalachian Literary Tradition,“

Originally born in Alabama, Still adopted eastern Kentucky as his home during the early years of the Great Depression. Life in Kentucky and the Cumberland Plateau became an integral theme in Still’s work, which evokes Appalachian culture, language, and landscape. Although best known for his novels and poetry, Still was also a prolific short story writer whose works often appeared in prestigious journals such as the Virginia Quarterly Review, Yale Review, and Prairie Schooner, as well as general interest magazines like the Atlantic and the Saturday Evening Post. When Still died in 2001 at age 94, he had secured a lasting reputation among readers of Appalachian literature based on a relatively small number of literary works.

The Hills Remember honors Still with the first comprehensive collection of his short fiction. The book includes stories from other Still collections such as River of Earth but also includes several lesser-known stories as well as 10 stories which have only recently been discovered and that have never-before been published. Ted Olson, who teaches in the Appalachian Studies and English programs at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., will be familiar to readers in Western North Carolina from his reviews, etc., as editor of the Poetry Page of Asheville’s Rapid River monthly magazine. Olson, in his landmark book, writes a comprehensive introduction concerning Still and his work and examines the author’s short fiction within the contexts of his body of work and within the canons of Appalachian and American literature. In his introduction, Olson favorably compares Still’s short fiction to that of other notable American writers as Poe, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Welty and Cheever. Presenting all of Still’s compelling and varied short stories in one volume, The Hills Remember is a testament to a master writer.

Still’s stories in The Hills Remember are distinctive in style and universal in theme. Still’s stories in this collection stand out as evocative and timeless yet remarkably accessible to the general reader. Simply said, these are “tales from the soul of Appalachia.” Not until recently with the writing of Charles Frazier, Wayne Caldwell and Ron Rash has the spirit of James Still and the mountain South been unleashed to a whole new generation of appreciative readers. And with Ted Olson’s new book of Still’s short stories, we can look for a whole new wave of popularity among a new and larger generation of Still fans — much as he was a household name in Kentucky during the 1960s.

If asked to choose amongst the 53 short stories in this collection, I would be hard-pressed to choose only one as an out-and-out favorite. However, the story “Hit Liked To a’ Kilt Me” stands out in my mind as one that is unique in this book as well in all of Appalachian literature. It is all about how this story is written in the dialect of what Appalachian poet (and friend of James Still) Jim Wayne Miller called “Southern Mountain Speech.” James Still is the only Southern writer, to my knowledge, who attempts to literally duplicate the southern mountain dialect. The title of this particular story being indicative of what the reader will find in his reading of this rich and at times raucous poetic language.

In the book’s title story “The Hills Remember,” a crowd gathers near the bank of Troublesome Creek to watch the villain of their Kentucky hill-town lie back in his own blood after being accidentally shot in the back. In its telling this story thrusts forward the universal themes of good and evil, right and wrong, and fate and chance. On the other end of the spectrum, in the story “Mrs. Razor,” Still gives us a whimsical story about six-year-old Elvy and her fantasy life as a wife and mother. “Mrs. Razor” gives us a glimpse into a child’s world of pretend and offers a heartwarming look at the relationship between father and child. In “Horse Doctor,” a young boy accompanies his father (Still’s father was a horse doctor with no official training) on a visit to a sick mare at a neighbor’s farm. Through stark prose and subtle imagery, the story reveals the naivety of the young narrator and explores the intricate relationship between Appalachian neighbors and families.  

In one of Still’s most loved stories, “The Nest,” a young Nezzie Hargis becomes lost during a snow storm. In a seemingly unfamiliar terrain of isolation, in actuality Nezzie is never far from home. As she painfully struggles to find her way in the blinding storm, we see Nezzie mature from childhood innocence to adulthood. And in the story “Brother of Methuselum,” Still focuses on his character Uncle Mize, who by a strange twist of fate begins to grow young again at the age of 103 — his hair and teeth return, he props his walking stick in a corner, and he tosses his glasses away. “Brother Methuselum” explores the theme of immortality while offering us a story of Appalachian mysticism.

In a book that is endorsed on the University Press of Kentucky’s handsome cover by Appalachian luminaries Ron Rash, Loyal Jones, Gurney Norman, Chris Offutt and Jeff Daniel Marion, this is a must read for anyone who is “from here” or that has embraced the Appalachian mountain region as their own. We will learn more about ourselves than we knew and will be the better for having done so. The Hills Remember rests, as we speak, on my bedside table. It will remain there until I have read it from cover to cover — one story, each night, at a time. There is no better way to read a book of short stories. And this one’s a classic.

(Thomas Crowe is the author of the award-winning memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods and lives in Tuckasegee. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still edited by Ted Olson. University Press of Kentucky, 2012. 406 pages.

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